Viewpoint: Making a farce of Wisconsin?s Managed Forest Law
How many of us hunt on open Managed Forest Lands in Wisconsin? How many of us fish, hike, sight-see or cross-country ski on these lands? As of June 2013, our state had approximately 1.1 million acres of open managed forest lands – open to us all.
Yet in less than two weeks, our State Senate may be asked to vote on a bill that will deny us the privilege of accessing these open lands if the lands are within a proposed iron mining site. Senate Bill 278, authored by State Senator Tom Tiffany, will make a farce of a well-respected program that was created in 1985 to promote sound forestry practices and open more land to the public for recreation.
According to our current law, the purpose of the Managed Forest Land (MFL) program is to “encourage the management of private forest lands for the production of future forest crops for commercial use through sound forestry practices, recognizing the objectives of individual property owners, compatible recreational uses, watershed protection, development of wildlife habitat and accessibility of private property to the public for recreational purposes.” Wis. Stats. s. 77.80.
Landowners with at least 10 contiguous acres, of which 80 percent or more is forested, can apply to have their property placed in the Managed Forest Lands (MFL) program. The advantage to the landowners is that they pay a substantially lower tax rate on their land per acre.
Landowners can choose to have their land closed or open to the public. If they choose to “close” their land, they cannot close more than 160 acres per municipality. Landowners who close their lands pay a higher tax rate than landowners who choose to have “open” lands.
“Open” lands require the landowner to permit public access for hunting, fishing, hiking, sight-seeing and cross-country skiing.
Under the Managed Forest Law, landowners commit to a 25 or 50 year sustainable forest management plan. Pursuant to the law, landowners can voluntarily withdraw from the program at any time prior to the expiration of the plan. At the time of withdrawal, the landowners are assessed a withdrawal tax and withdrawal fee.
The withdrawal tax is the higher of either the amount the landowner would have paid in taxes over the previous years the land was in the MFL program or five percent of the stumpage value of the merchantable timber on the land. The taxes paid already by the landowner, under either option, are subtracted from the higher amount. Wis. Stats. s. 77.88 (a).
Senator Tiffany authored SB 278 in order to promote the interests of one out-of-state mining company, Gogebic Taconite (GTAC), over the interests of the public. According to its Preapplication Notice to the DNR, dated June 17, 2013, GTAC’s proposed mining site boundary along the Penokee Range encompasses 6,744 acres. These lands are owned by RGGS Land & Minerals, LaPointe Iron Company, and Chester Co. Limited. These lands are in the MFL program and are designated “open.”
Under the ruse of drafting legislation that will protect workers on the mine site from protestors, SB278 will allow GTAC to close to the public these legally mandated “open” lands.
Our government seems insistent on taking away privileges we share as citizens of Wisconsin by drafting new laws that benefit special interests. If GTAC is sincere about protecting its workers at the potential mine site, the solution is simple – voluntarily withdraw the lands from the MFL program. Then these private lands will be closed automatically to the public.
Of course the company landowners would be responsible for deferred taxes on the land withdrawn from the program. News sources indicate The Town of Anderson in Iron County could receive as much as $400,000, for example, if the land were withdrawn from the MFL program. And the landowners would have to begin paying regular property taxes.
Rather than follow Wisconsin law, however, GTAC once again has lobbied our legislators to change our laws to its favor and our detriment. The public will lose. The municipalities will lose. But GTAC will get what it wants – “open” MFL lands closed to the public while the landowner companies continue to reap the benefits of the lower tax rates.
If you hunt, fish, hike, sight-see or cross-country ski on open Managed Forest Lands, become informed. Then contact each of our State Senators and let them know your position on SB 278. Do it soon. Your privilege to access open managed forest lands is at stake.
Susan Sommer, Phelps